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JESUS’ FAMOUS SERMON: GIFTS

Matthew 5: 21-26

 

A young man once had a habit of
losing his temper easily, and when he did so, he said things that were hurtful,
he cursed repeatedly, and, at times, those around him thought his stability was
in question. Psychologists have noted that very angry people can be categorized
during the outburst as clinically insane. Even though we are taught that sticks
and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me, it isn’t true.
Words can hurt; and once words have
been fired by our most lethal of weapons—our
mouths—we can’t take them back. The words hit their target and pierce
the heart of the one with whom we are angry. And later, all the “I’m sorrys” or
“I was just angry” comments, will not negate, or make up for the cutting
comments that were made. Often we blame the devil on things; sometimes we blame
our nature, like a man who once said “That’s just because I’m Irish!” Hmm.  You would think Jesus would want to address a
topic like murder, but today he changes the subject, instead addressing two
subjects in his sermon that seem less lethal than murder; the subjects are
anger, and forgiveness.

 

It disturbs me how many times Florida
is in the news with another person getting shot. No matter what you think about
carrying a gun, times of anger or intense fear often make situations escalate.
Our courts are filled with people who have killed, and the prohibition against
murder has been around since God handed the tablets to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
It’s the sixth commandment. And yet as difficult as that topic is, Jesus starts
with the topic of killing in verse 21, but changes to focus on anger in verse
22. So get this, all who lose their temper: Jesus is talking about a killing commandment
in one breath, but changes to the subject of anger in the next. Anger
apparently is as big an issue as breaking a commandment. “I say to you,” Jesus
says, “that everyone who is angry with his brother or sister shall be liable to
judgment.”

 

So let’s pick up the story of the
angry young man. His father took him into their back yard which was surrounded
by a white picket fence.  “I want you to
do something for me,” his father said. “Every time you lose your temper, and
you lash out against someone in anger, I want you to come out to our fence and
hammer a big nail into it. At the end of the month, we’ll talk again.” A month
passed and his son kept his part of the agreement. The fence had a dozen nails
pounded into it. “Now,” the father asked, “Have you made amends with any people
you hurt?” “I sure have,” the boy brightened up. He thought that was the end of
the lesson. It wasn’t. His father said: “Okay, now for every situation where
you were sorry and asked for forgiveness for what you said, pull out a nail.”
Nine of the twelve nails came out. Deep holes were left in the fence, clearly
marking where the nails were. “You see son,” his father said, “even if you ask
for forgiveness, and say you are sorry, the hole is still there. It is more
susceptible to rot and decay. The fence is never good as new again. With putty
and paint it may look new but it’s
never quite the way it was before. That’s the way it is with people; the scars
still remain.”

 

Our mouths, and the words that come
from our mouths, can either create: encouraging and renewing; or they can
destroy: humiliating, and tearing down. It was with a word that God created the
world according to Genesis. With everything that was created, God said (or spoke), and it was so. Likewise
it was Satan who spoke to Jesus in the desert, trying to tempt him in his hour
of need. Jesus stood firm instead. Controlling our anger, including not just
our actions but our words, is an
action that Jesus elevated to the level of the 6th commandment. “Do
not do let your anger cause you to sin.”

 

That is one nugget of wisdom in
Jesus’ sermon.  Here is the second one:
verses 23-24. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember
that your brother or your sister has something against you, leave your gift
there before the altar and go;  first be reconciled to your brother or
sister and then come and offer your
gift.” This is big; it is so big that Jesus said it again: where did he say it
again? It was in his sample for praying in
this very same sermon
. It’s “The Lord’s Prayer.” He said to pray like this:
“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In other words, we are not
going to God first for forgiveness;
we are going to God second for
forgiveness, asking for the same measure of forgiveness that we have offered
others.” This completes the picture Jesus is painting in his sermon. We must seek forgiveness from others, but we
must also offer forgiveness to
others; it doesn’t make things as if the sin didn’t happen; it doesn’t take us
back to the innocence of the Garden of Eden; but it does take us to the realm of forgiveness; of reconciliation; and of
moving on instead of staying stuck where we are. Let’s break down what Jesus
says.

 

“When you are offering your gifts at
the altar.” In Jesus’ day, like in our day, people wanted to avoid the person
they had hurt and go directly to God to ask for forgiveness. They would bring
money or other gifts to altars of God as a way to “pay the price” for the sin.
Jesus said “no.” Certainly the church through the ages has encouraged what
Jesus spoke against as parishioners faithfully have come to priests, ministers,
or counselors to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness. To do so misses
the most important step. Jesus says before
you do that, “first be reconciled to the one you have hurt.” Reconciled;
reconnected; the bridge that was once between you got burned by your sins; your
hurtful actions or words.  Forgiveness
builds a new build; not the same one; not one accepted naively, but one that
reconnects the two of you with eyes wide open. Try everything you can to show
you are truly sorry if indeed you are; perhaps the other person will not
believe you, but it takes earnest and honest trials. On the other hand maybe
the other person will forgive you. If
you are given another chance, don’t ruin
it.
Take it as a gift from the other. Then, after all of that happens, go back to the altar of God, retrieve
your gift, and offer it. Then God can also offer you forgiveness. It’s a
wonderful process that cannot just occur at an altar, in a confessional, or in
a counseling session. This extra step matters. Conversely, if someone has hurt
you and goes through all the steps just outlined, Jesus implores you to
forgive. To withhold forgiveness, you see, does not keep the sinner from
achieving forgiveness by trying, by going through the steps. But it does keep you from a relationship with
God, if you chose not to forgive your debtor: the one who took something
emotional, physical, or spiritual from you. It is not easy but it gives you a
chance for life instead of misery. Let’s use a different translation: “Forgive
us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What is being
asked said there? That we be forgiven our sins to the degree that we forgive
the sins that we have committed: infringing on the rights, well-being, or
safety of the others.

 

Finally in this passage, Jesus
teaches that these actions should not be delayed. Waiting until one’s deathbed
to forgive one’s children, or parent, or spouse after carrying on a three year
or three decade  old cold war is too
little too late. Jesus implores his listeners, and us, to act sooner! “Be
reconciled with your brother or sister, then come and offer your gift to God.”
Do it now. The sooner you work to be reconciled with others, the sooner you
will be reconciled to God. The longer you wait to be reconciled, the longer it
will be until you are reconciled with God. No matter what your gifts are to
God; no matter with what humility you approach the holy altar, God will not let
you receive that which you want to hear—forgiveness or welcome—until you put
first things first:  forgiving (not
forgetting, but moving on); or asking sincerely for forgiveness (putting in to
place measures to keep those angry words, or those bad habits, from continuing).
Then you have a chance to not just think about getting into heaven, but about
living life more fully an abundantly. What do you have to lose, but your pride?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                February
16, 2014

 

 

 

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JESUS’ FAMOUS SERMON: CHALLENGE

Matthew 5: 13-20

 

I once met a man who had a job at a
factory that paid very, very well. Sometimes work stopped and they were laid
off, but as soon as the plant opened again, everyone lined up. The pay was just
too good to look somewhere else. This man was a faithful church goer and a
Presbyterian Church elder. He was always pleasant and encouraging. One day I
asked him “How do you like your job?” Without missing a beat his demeanor changed;
he said, “I hate it; I just hate it. I am counting the days until I retire.”
I’ve thought about that man often and thought how sad it would be to have done
something you hated to do all your life counting the days until retirement. And
then it comes and you do what: A list of things you haven’t had time to do;
hope that your health holds out as long with your retirement income?  Now that I am older I have seen more
scenarios that showed different outcomes than that one. In this congregation
instead of having people say, “I’m retired it’s just my time to play,” I see
people while play to also pour time and effort into their love for Jesus and
their church. I hear some say, as they move to Florida and are asked to
volunteer, “I did that up north,” and they imply that they don’t want to do
much here. But not doing much isn’t always as fun as it first sounds; some
people, after awhile, say “yes” to Christian witness and their retirement includes
working in their church and the world. Some people who are still employed still
say “yes” to their church and their Lord. Some, although they don’t have to
work for pay, do work for God!  And some,
after the death of a family member, not only pick themselves up and work for
God, they allow others in their church to minister to them and their church
becomes a support system. I admire and appreciate those people. I am not at the
point of retirement at all, but, like some of you, I can get discouraged. Ages
ago someone wrote these words and made them into a gospel spiritual: “Sometimes
I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain; but then the Holy Spirit
revives my soul again.” And then we the refrain follows, about an actual place—Gilead—and a mysterious balm that never scientifically
healed sin-sick souls. But the song gives people hope; hope for a better
tomorrow. I want you to know that I am grateful for the encouragement and
witness from some of you have offered to me and others; and how you work
through the valleys of your life. This week I was grateful that our chapel,
like every Thursday, was open for Contemplative Prayer and there I went. But
today Jesus is preaching to me and perhaps to you. His sermon is also a
challenge to all who want to be a Christian in name and not in action; any who
want to be a pastor emeritus instead of pastor; any who want the bumper sticker
on their car to say “retired” instead of “volunteer.” Yes there will be, and
should be, time for rest; yes there will be and should be time for renewal. But
there is a world filled with people that need the light the Christ offers.
Jesus needs disciples, not just church members. Jesus needs people who say
“Coach, put me in the game” instead of benchwarmers or those on the disabled
list long term.  Two women in our church
who have joined the Church Triumphant come to mind. A tremendous elder in our
church became home bound with macular degeneration. She was almost blind. But
each day she talked herself into writing encouraging notes to me and to those
who, like her, could come to church no longer. The writing went uphill, and
downhill; big letters and small letters. But the message was conveyed; someone
was praying for and pulling for me! And it was someone in her condition. I’ve
saved those notes. Another woman could not be out in public because her
chemotherapy left her with no immune system. She was stuck at home. So she
decided to create her own telephone ministry, when she called people on our
prayer list, encouraged them, and prayed with them. What examples. Our friends
up at First Presbyterian Church had an article in their newsletter this month
which read, in part: Members’ mentality is “I am here to be served.” Disciples’
mentality is: “I am here to serve.” Members on the chart were “receivers;”
disciples were “givers.” Members say “Don’t ask too much of me.” Disciples say
“I’m available.” Some will say these are caricatures, but they got me thinking.
As I was busy with my doctoral degree, organizations agreed to not ask me to
lead or serve in new ministries until all that work was done. But sure enough,
as soon as I was done, the invitations came for me to be part of or to lead a board
or a group. Part of me wanted to say no; it still does; but the very people I
admire among you who have said “yes” to me and others over the years encouraged
me to say “yes” again. You are sometimes my example; Jesus is always my
example. But today Jesus is my challenger and our preacher.

 

Jesus continues his sermon with what we
began to examine last week. He is preaching to his disciples in particular and
to others who were listening in on the north side of the Sea of Galilee. He is
sitting down we are told in Matthew 5:1; surprisingly for 21st
century persons, sitting was the customary posture for teachers of his day. So
even in this sermon, he sat.  He offered
those words of blessing that we explored last week, words that comforted some
and confronted others. His tone continues this week. Here, he comforts at
first, then he challenges in the next breath.
Any words that follow the word “but” in a sentence take power away from
the words at the beginning of the sentence. For example if someone says to you
“You are such a good student, but you don’t apply yourself!” Would you feel
complimented? “That dinner was so good, but it was just a little too spicy.”
How would you feel?  Or “I have
appreciated all you’ve done to get the house ready for company, but your things
are still piled in the corner of the den.” Well Jesus says to his listeners and
by extrapolation, to me and you: “You are the salt of the earth!” I’ve heard
that expression growing up.  “He’s the
salt of the earth!” said about a pillar of a community or a church. Why is that
a good expression?  Well in Jesus’ day
salt had nearly the value of gold. It was used to preserve foods, to flavor
foods, as an agent for purification as recorded in 2 Kings 2: 19-22, and as an
ingredient for sacrifices to God as in Leviticus 2:13 and Ezekiel 43: 24.
Saying we are salt is a compliment, at first. Then there’s the word “but.” In
Stephen Schwartz paraphrase of this passage in “Godspell” his interpretation of
Matthew’s Gospel, he says: “But if that salt has lost its flavor it ain’t got
much in its favor!” What if our job, like salt, is to preserve God’s witness in
the world? What if our job is to flavor or change the dialogue in the world?
What if our job is to work to purify the ways of our world?  And what if our job is to bring the right
sacrifice to God according to the prophet Micah: “to do justice, show kindness,
and walk humbly with God? How are you doing? I ask myself that. What if the
reason for which God created us is not to stay in neutral but to decide to
shift our life into “Drive”? What if we have a purpose for our existence—not
just to be a  Christian in name, but to
be live as one in action—
not to set our Christianity on a shelf like a
trophy, but to find how Jesus wants us to be his disciple? What if we are
letting God’s calls for our action or involvement simply go to voicemail, or
get deleted from our emails? Can you believe that at the beginning of his
ministry, Jesus needed to challenge even the twelve he chose, to live in an
engaged manner? 

 

One time years ago our youth group, back
from a mission trip, came up with a wonderful acronym: It was “J.O.Y.” and the
youth shared it with our congregation one Sunday. They preached with their
actions and with their words. They taught us that we are called to first “Live
for Jesus first; second to live for Others; and third to live for
Yourself.” J.O.Y.  If your
saltiness is gone, or was never there in the first place, your list is
reversed: you live for Yourself first, for Others second, and maybe for Jesus
last. What a difference.  Jesus calls us
to a right order and right purpose if we are choosing to be his disciple. 

 

Stanley Saunders, Professor of New
Testament at Columbia Seminary, writes this about Matthew 5: 13: “Jesus’ claim
is not that the community ought to be salty some of the time, but that ‘You!
You are salt!’ When they cease to bear witness to the reality of God’s reign,
the disciples become something other than salty disciples. When their witness
in situations of conflict and oppression leads others to glorify God, the
disciples demonstrate their saltiness.
And when the community functions in the world to preserve, purify, and
season, when it permeates the world as salt permeates and flavors food, it is a
salty community.” [Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, Westminster/John
Knox Press, 2010, p. 36]

 

Through the ages, even outside of the
so-called “Dark Ages,” our world has often been seen as a place of darkness,
even a place where the prince of darkness rules. But the prince of darkness
only rules and wins if we let him; if we stay safely within our church
buildings or homes; if we stay cocooned in our safely locked cars and drive
miles away from neighborhoods where justice or a hand up could make a difference.
Certainly I am not suggesting foolish actions where one naively deals with
harmful or threatening people. But Jesus called his disciples “Light.” He
himself was Light, but he saw his disciples—and us—as his body: ones who would
carry Light into the world. One example of that just came to my attention on
Friday. When Ginny Kent became a new elder in our congregation, she attended a
Presbytery meeting. She heard about one place where our Easter Offering, called
“One Great Hour of Sharing” went. One of the Presbyterian agencies that receive
Easter offerings is called “Self Development of People,” a way to give
organizations that meet the guidelines a gift to help them become self
sustaining. She looked into the guidelines, found out that no Volusia County
agency had ever been awarded a grant, and began to help an organization in
Daytona Beach called H.O.M.E. put in an application. It’s a group that works to
move people beyond homelessness. On Friday Ginny received word from our
headquarters that H.O.M.E. will receive a grant from the Presbyterian Church
(USA) in the amount of $11,400, all because she as a church member and a new
elder, asked “Why not us? Why not see if an organization in our community can
qualify for funds to make a difference?” Well done, Ginny. And well done others
of you who are light and salt for the world.

 

There are times I get tired and
discourage, like most of you. There are times I want to be left alone, perhaps
likes some of you. But then I get salted by our powerful and wonderful Gospel,
being lived out through some of you! And in my darker times the light of Jesus
shines through your words, your note cards, and your actions. Keep up the good
work! We all can catch the spark and have our souls revived again by the light
of Christ! Discipleship; it’s more than membership. It’s the sermon that Jesus
preached one day in Galilee that said: “I have a challenge for you! Don’t get
too comfortable today! There is work to be done; my work, God’s work, Kingdom
work, and I need you.” Jesus says that to you today! If you are saying :
“How can I continue to, or begin to use, my God given salt and light, look at
the back of the bulletin or in the annual report mailed to you. Our Outreach
ministries, our Christian Education ministries, or our Congregational life
ministries are places to start. Call one of the leaders, or call the office if
you need guidance. Jesus has a world to reach, and even with the bumps in the
road of my life, you can pull my spirit out of the ditch; and I’ll pull your
spirit out of the ditch, so we can live as disciples of our Lord.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February
9, 2014

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JESUS’FAMOUS SERMON: BLESSING

Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 5:1-12

 

Back in 1986 when Jim Smith, then Chaplain of Halifax Medical
Center, invited the Rev. Myron Madden to spend a day speaking to pastors and
chaplains in the Daytona Beach area, we jumped at the chance. His topic: “The
Power to Bless,” which was also the name of one of his wonderful books. A
reading of Scripture reminds us that before anyone else has perhaps blessed us,
God blessed us first. God loves you and, along with blessing, God gave responsibility
to God’s first chosen people, and then to those chosen because they follow
Jesus as Savior. But some have not realized, or owned, the idea that they have
been offered a blessing from God. Rev. Madden reminded us that often a cloudy
hearing of God’s blessing might get superseded by blessings we’ve received from
others in our lives. I know  people who
have felt blessed by their parents and others by their grandparents; some from
a coach and some from a teacher; and some have felt blessed by someone else who
showed amazing grace or gave loving guidance.
Today this message on “blessing” is a call to understand something that many
in our world have forgotten: along with
blessing, comes responsibility.
In Jesus’ day some had forgotten that; and
in our day it still happens. An unnatural sense of entitlement has, in some
cases, become a self-serving replacement for responsibility. Today we will
explore the two-sides of being blessed and being a blessing to others.

 

First, what is a
blessing?
  In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, part of which
was quoted today, “Jesus reversed the general value system by pronouncing
blessing on the poor, the hungry, and those who weep.” [THE NEW INTERPRETER’S
BIBLE, Vol. VIII, p. 176]  Such a list
can make people feel confused about what a blessing is and who has been
blessed. Some even try to spiritualize the blessings of poverty, of meekness,
or great sorrow. Do you really think that those in utter poverty, moving from
dumpster to dumpster and park bench to park bench believe they are richly
blessed?  Do you really think that those
of a gentle nature who are bullied by other students at school; or trusting women
who get tricked by men who take advantage of them; or older people who, in
their illness, feel powerless to resolve their medical bills feel richly
blessed?  And do you really think that
those who have just lost their child, their spouse, or their best friend to
war, to murder, or to illness feel blessed?
We have to come back to Jesus’
definition of “blessed” after hearing those descriptions. Are they the blessed
ones? What could Jesus mean by saying that they are?
  A blessing in Latin is a Beatitude, in Greek
the word is Markarios; the words point out people who are privileged, or
fortunate; they can also mean happy or well-off.  Such declarations of blessing have rolled off
the tongues of pagans, Jews, and Christians over the years. In Rome, in Greece,
in Israel, and in all of America, people often perceive blessed people as those
with a fine home, beautiful appointments, good health, well-adjusted children,
and beauty.  There are, of course,
exceptions to the “living happily ever after” stories we picture. In this
season of highly paid Super Bowl participants, Grammy award winners, and
Academy award winners, we find some who look blessed by those definitions, but
they are in fact unhappy, livid, or living fractured lives. So although the
word “blessing” has traditionally meant privileged, fortunate, well-off, or
happy, we know people who fit the description who clearly don’t feel blessed.
What are they missing? Clearly there is a missing link.

 

The second point today
is the link: along with blessing comes responsibility.  So we ask: “What is required of the blessed
children of God?”
The
prophet Micah takes us down a well worn path of holy enlightenment:  “What does the Lord require but these:  when
given the choice, to make the right one, the one that pleases God; to show
kindness toward others; and to walk humbly with your God?”
For those who
are blessed, responsibility is a stewardship lesson: God has given you money,
good looks, talents, a scientific mind, heightened senses, or some combination
of those; if those people make good choices: showing kindness, and honoring God
rather than self then they become a blessing to others. More sharing and caring
is supposed to accompany more blessing, using the scales of Kingdom justice. It
is so clear, and yet it eludes many with talents or means, or beauty.  People of means are called by Jesus not to
figure more ways to hold it, but to think of more ways to use it.  The world of the arts, of science, of
industry, and of religion is better because of the world’s wealthy
philanthropists. People feel blessed not by how much others have, but by how
much others give.  People of talents are
called by Jesus not to figure ways to live like kings as some sports or
television personalities do, but to think of ways to improve conditions for
poor children, to mentor them with examples of clean living, and to live
faithful rather than philandering lives.
The world of talented people includes people like those who have given
toward medical excellence like Arnold and Winnie Palmer, and Danny Thomas and
his daughter Marlo.  The world of the
talented has included musicians who have given concerts for missions and relief,
including a concert last year to assist in Hurricane Sandy relief. For me,
beautiful people are much less defined by how they look on camera than by the
beauty of their hearts, their kindness, and their willingness. Our blessings,
like our talents, are not to be buried, returned to God unused upon death, or
to be hoarded for one’s own riotous living without giving a thought to the
Father who gave them.  Blessings are
intended to be used so the Kingdom messages of love, joy, and peace might lift
up those in the world who are most forgotten, most unnoticed, and most
powerless.  Heaven has a room for them,
many rooms, in fact. Will you receive blessings in Heaven because you shared
with others on Earth?  Heaven has a
record; a rugged self-evaluation will tell you how you measure up through the
eyes of the Lamb who sits upon the throne.

 

Finally, we come back
to the question of who are the blessed ones.
  Our Lord Jesus
must have been up to his neck with people of wealth and power who did not
understand the second half of the blessing equation. Matthew, the man who
changed from hoarding to helping with the call of Jesus, was a Jew who knew his
own people! This most famous of Jesus’ sermons turns blessings on their ear; those
who listened were astounded! Can you imagine the conversations among the
listeners? “What did he say?  He can’t
mean it! He says the sad ones, the meek, the merciful, the pure ones, and
peacemakers are blessed? What is he talking about? Everyone knows that they are
most to be pitied!” But Jesus then turned the tables on the rich and Luke
records it; Luke took the Beatitudes in Matthew and wrote down other things
Jesus said. Luke knew that plenty of marginalized people needed Jesus’
encouragement. He, and only he, recorded Jesus’ words of woe: woe to those who are rich and hoard it, to
those who stuff themselves with food, those who live as if there is no
tomorrow, to those who live for accolades: there will be no further reward for
you.
[Luke 6] Ouch. That gets your attention, doesn’t it? Jesus’ words
struck a note of authority; the man of gentleness gave a fiery sermon on that
day. Could it be that God is holding great rewards for those who are ridiculed
and forgotten now? Could it really be that those who feel no blessing now—the  poor, the grieving, the hungry, the merciful,
the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted—can count on abundant blessings
eternally, leaving those who grabbed for themselves locked outside of the gates
of Heaven? People of all walks of life, something like us today, listened in
rapt silence as Jesus finished his stunning oration on the north side of the
Sea of Galilee so long ago. Some walked away from the sermon that day and changed
their lives, turning Scrooge-like miserliness into saint-like mission; others
turned their disabilities into possibilities. Some left the hillside that day
and shared even more from the little they had; and some just went back home
unaffected by what they heard.

What will you do with what you’ve heard?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          February
2, 2014